In 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral went hunting one day in the Alps. When he got home, he noticed his socks were covered with cockleburs (Xanthium). Curious to know why, he examined one of the cockleburs under a microscope to discover they had tiny hooks on the ends that allowed them to grab onto any sort of material that formed a loop. Typical clothing made from woven fabric made the perfect field of loops.
De Mestral spent the next 15 years trying to figure out the perfect material from which he could create a synthetic version of what he experienced in nature. He settled on nylon because it does not rot, break down, or attract mold. He eventually discovered that when nylon is heated on one end, it forms a natural hook. Then he found a way to weave nylon thread into a series of loops in a separate piece of fabric. When the fabric with the hooks was pressed against the fabric with the loops, the two pieces naturally stuck together just like the cockleburs had stuck to de Mestral's socks. In 1960, Velek Ltd. acquired the exclusive right to market the product in North and South America under the name Velcro.
This revolutionary fabric changed how Marines put on their flak jackets, how astronauts, scuba divers, and firemen put on their suits, and even how you put on your children's shoes—all because de Mestral paid close attention to what most people ignored.
One of the secrets of innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the ages is that they go out of their way to pay attention to their mistakes, random events, and things they weren't looking for. They themselves will tell you—it is not a matter of intelligence. It is a matter of being observant.
While most people tend to ignore their mistakes and accidents, legendary innovators and entrepreneurs are different. They are fascinated by the ridiculous and the absurd because that's the stuff they find most interesting. That's usually where the biggest secrets are hidden.
Isaac Asimov once said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka'—but 'that's funny.'" Some of the greatest discoveries in history came from the aggressive pursuit of idle curiosity.
Nobel Prize winner Alexander Fleming explained that if it had not been for his previous experience where a drip from his nose had accidentally fallen into a petri dish growing bacteria and killed it, he would not have made the connection, seven years later, between the random floating of a mold spore that fell into another petri dish and killed the dangerous staphylococcus bacteria. Fleming explains: